Congress funds construction of military road between Fort Walla Walla and Steilacoom on December 29, 1852.

  • By Jennifer Ott
  • Posted 6/24/2014
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10781

On December 29, 1852, the U.S. Congress allocates $20,000 for construction of a military road between Fort Walla Walla on the Columbia River and Steilacoom on Puget Sound. Settlers around Puget Sound have been clamoring for a wagon road across the Cascade Mountains to encourage settlement. Although an army lieutenant, George B. McClellan (1826-1885), is tasked with building the road, private citizens will do much of the work clearing a wagon route over Naches Pass along an existing Indian trail. The Longmire-Biles wagon train will use the new road in September 1853, but the route will be used by only a handful of wagon trains over the next few years. Livestock drives will continue to use Naches Pass for several decades, but wagon traffic across the mountains will largely use a Snoqualmie Pass wagon road opened in 1867.

The Idea of a Road 

When the idea for a wagon road across the Cascades at Naches Pass emerged in the early 1850s, overland emigrants were settling in the Willamette Valley south of the Columbia in large numbers. Because most settlers entered what at the time was all Oregon Territory via the Oregon Trail, they used the Columbia River Gorge to traverse the Cascade Mountains. That route led settlers to the more established settlements in the Willamette Valley.

Settlers in a smaller and newer community on the southern end of Puget Sound, concentrated around Olympia and Fort Steilacoom (located between Olympia and the future site of Tacoma), wanted to encourage newly arriving settlers to claim land north of the Columbia. They reasoned that if they could get wagon trains to turn north at the Umatilla Plain (where the Oregon Trail emerged from the Blue Mountains in what is now northeastern Oregon) and follow the Walla Walla River valley to Fort Walla Walla at the confluence of the Walla Walla and Columbia rivers, the newcomers would be more likely to continue via wagon road to Puget Sound through the Yakima River valley and over Naches Pass instead of floating down the Columbia River.

Oregon Territory's congressional delegate, Joseph Lane (1801-1881), first petitioned Congress in 1851 to construct a military road between Fort Walla Walla and Puget Sound as part of a network of military roads "both for civil and military purposes" ("Memorial to the Legislature of Oregon," 5). In newspaper articles from 1852, editors of the Olympia newspaper The Columbian advocated for a road. One asked rhetorically:

"Does not the safety of our citizens from foreign or Indian aggression -- the regard which is due American citizens in enabling them to become possessors of an enheritace [sic] which their government have donated to them -- the expediency of government consulting its own CONVENIENCE, in providing a way, if necessary, to reinforce the military station already on this coast, all dictate the propriety of congress taking the necessary measures in making adequate appropriations for the immediate construction of a military road at least ACROSS THE CASCADE MOUNTAINS?" ("Meeting of Congress -- Northern Oregon…").

The Columbian editorialized in support of a memorial drawn up by citizens living north of the Columbia River, to be sent to the Oregon territorial legislature in January 1853, calling for a military road between the river east of the Cascades and Puget Sound. The editorial added a suggestion: The legislature should charter a private company, the Cascade Road Company of Northern Oregon, to build the road across the Cascades. The editors noted that so few settlers lived north of the Columbia that it would be hard to get funding for a road from Congress and finished with a flourish: "WE MUST HAVE THE ROAD" ("Memorials to the Legislature").

Rallying Support 

The northern-Oregon settlers had not yet received word that Congress had, in fact, allocated $20,000 for the road on December 29, 1852. President Millard Fillmore (1800-1874) signed the law on January 7, 1853, and the funds were added to the army's budget. Less than two months later, Fillmore signed a bill that created Washington Territory out of the northern portions of Oregon Territory. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis (1808-1889) directed newly appointed Washington territorial governor Isaac I. Stevens (1818-1862) to delegate responsibility for construction of the wagon road. Stevens, who was also leading the survey of a transcontinental railroad route through the northern portion of the country, placed Lieutenant George B. McClellan, who was already assigned to surveying potential railroad routes across the Cascades, in charge of the military road.

As McClellan made his way first to the army's Vancouver Barracks on the Columbia and then inland to the Yakima River Valley, settlers on Puget Sound, worried that another season would pass without any progress, began organizing an effort to open the road from the west side. To rally support, The Columbian exhorted its readers in April 1853:  "Late advices from the States say, 'an immense throng will cross the plains this year,' -- and our word for it, many thousands will come to Washington, if they can get here. It is our duty to them, to our country and to ourselves to open the way. Let us not by an unjustifiable, aye criminal, inertness neglect to do everything in our power…The realization of our greatest hopes depend upon the construction of the road from Walla-walla to Puget Sound" ("Road Over the Cascade Mountains"). 

On May 21, 1853, settlers from around Olympia held a meeting to gauge support for building a road and to develop a plan. With "general and generous enthusiasm," the crowd decided to send a survey crew out to find the best route over the Cascades. A party of four men -- John Edgar (1814-1855), Whitfield Kirtley, Edward J. Allen (1830-1915), and George Shazer -- set out on May 30. They traveled up Yelm Prairie, over to the Puyallup River, then up the White and Greenwater rivers to Naches Pass. They returned to Olympia in early July and reported that they felt this was the best route, with plenty of grass for livestock and a minimum of steep grades. Meanwhile, a committee in Olympia gathered donations of money and supplies and maintained a list of people who volunteered to work on the road.

Moving Forward 

At a public meeting on July 9, the settlers decided to move forward on building the road, having "waited for Capt. McClellan's arrival until their patience is entirely exhausted" ("The Road to Walla-walla"). The Columbian noted how little time remained to open the road for that year's emigrants and encouraged the community to move ahead with construction using donated money and labor, with plans to tap the federal appropriation later.

Twelve men started out on July 19 for the Yakima River end of the road, to start work there and move westward. The next Saturday, a similar-sized group under the leadership of Edward J. Allen left Steilacoom to start on the western end of the road. The Columbian urged its readers to manage their crops, livestock, and other items that could help the anticipated emigrants get settled.

By mid-August, the crews had made considerable progress along the road. They grubbed out vegetation, cut the roadbed into hillsides as needed, and sometimes set fire to portions of the forest to clear the way. In anticipation of their success, The Columbian's editors could not resist a jab at Oregon -- "We are triumphing o'er the tyranny and envy of an elder sister, from whose eager clutches we have recently been delivered, and whose greedy jealousy follows and pursues us e'en unto the very goal of our success" ("The Cascade Road ...").

By the end of September, The Columbian reported that the road was finished from the Umatilla Plain, where it left the Oregon Trail, to the foothills on the western slope of the Cascades. Edgar J. Allen reported that the work crews expected to complete the last section of the road, from the foothills to the Nisqually Prairie between Olympia and Fort Steilacoom, by early October. One of the men working on the road, Nelson Sargent (1827-1914), had gone east to meet emigrants at the Umatilla Plain and guide anyone interested in following the new road to Puget Sound.

During the months that settlers worked clearing the route, McClellan partially carried out his instructions regarding the military road. From a base camp set up in the Wenas Valley in August 1853, on the eastern side of the mountains, he investigated several potential passes over the mountains, including Naches Pass, and hired Andrew W. Moore (1820-1875), one of the Olympians working from the eastern end of the road, to manage the project. Beyond that, he remained preoccupied with the railroad survey.

First Wagons over the Road 

The Longmire-Biles wagon train was the first group of emigrants to cross the mountains on the new wagon road. They met Nelson Sargent on the Umatilla Plain and agreed to try the route. After some difficulty getting to the base of the mountains due to miscommunication with Indian guides they hired in the Walla Walla River valley, the party made it to the Wenas Valley in late September 1853. There Owhi, a leader of the Upper Yakamas, cultivated crops alongside Wenas Creek. Owhi sold the emigrants fresh potatoes and allowed them to rest their livestock on the prairie for two days.

The wagon train commenced the crossing of the Cascades on about September 21, as David Longmire, one of the children in the party, later remembered it. The road followed Wenas Creek up to the foothills and then crossed a ridge into the Naches River valley. As it headed up the valley, the route crossed the Naches River 68 times due to the steepness of the hillsides along its banks. At the crest of the mountains, the wagon train went through Naches Pass and down to the headwaters of the Greenwater River.

Descending west from the pass, the emigrants reached the top a steep bluff, known as Summit Hill, with no clear route around it. One or more of the settlers offered to slaughter some of their cattle to provide hides that could be spliced together into ropes to lower the wagons down the steep face of the hill. They succeeded in safely lowering all of the train's 36 wagons, except for one, which was smashed on the descent.

It is not clear why the emigrants encountered this difficulty. Earlier reports in The Columbian declared the road complete and did not mention that there were any exceptionally difficult parts, but the reminiscences published later by members of the wagon train do not suggest that they had strayed from the road. Ezra Meeker (1830-1928) -- not a member of the Longmire-Biles party -- implied, in a reminiscence published in 1905, that reports the road was complete in 1853 had led to disastrous results, apparently referring to the Longmire-Biles experience, so it is possible that The Columbian's report that the road was completely passable in September 1853 was overly optimistic

Improved, Then Abandoned 

The Longmire-Biles train arrived on the Nisqually Plain on October 8, 1853, after a long and arduous trip. Another wagon train arrived over the road just before the end of the season. A handful of trains used the route the next year. Lieutenant Richard Arnold (1828-1882) left Fort Steilacoom in May 1854 to improve the 234 miles of road between the two forts. His crew's work reduced the crossings of the Naches River from more than 60 to a slightly less onerous 44. He also improved road grades where possible and cleared some trees that blocked the road.

The road over Naches Pass would be used for several decades by livestock drivers moving cattle between grazing lands in Eastern Washington and markets and ports on Puget Sound. Its importance as an emigrant route never reached the heights predicted by The Columbian, largely because of the difficulty of the route and the rapid shift in settlement northward on Puget Sound to the Seattle area through the 1850s, which led to the development of a Snoqualmie Pass route. That wagon road eventually became the route of the first trans-Cascade automobile highway -- the Sunset Highway, which opened over Snoqualmie Pass in 1915 -- while the route over Naches Pass was largely abandoned. In 1929, the state highway department constructed a cross-Cascades road (now State Route 410) over nearby Chinook Pass.


Sources: John Edgar, Whitfield Kirtley, Edward J. Allen, and George Shazer, "Report of the Cascade Road Exploring Party," The Columbian, July 2, 1853, p. 2; W. Turrentine Jackson, Wagon Roads West: A Study of Federal Road Surveys and Constructions in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1846-1869 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 71-106; David Longmire, "First Immigrants to Cross the Cascades," Washington Historical Quarterly, January 1917, pp. 22-28; James A. Longmire, "Narrative of James Longmire, A Pioneer of 1853," Washington Historical Quarterly, January 1932, pp. 47-60, and April 1932, pp. 138-150; William Denison Lyman, History of the Yakima Valley, Washington: Comprising Yakima, Kittitas, and Benton Counties (Chicago: S.J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1918), 206; Ezra Meeker, Pioneer Reminiscences of Puget Sound: The Tragedy of Leschi (Seattle: Lowman & Hanford, 1905), 91; "Arrival of Immigrants," The Columbian, October 13, 1853, p. 2; "The Cascade Road," The Columbian, September 24, 1853, p. 2; "The Cascade Road -- Cheering News," The Columbian, August 6, 1853, p. 2; "The Cascade Road -- The Immigration -- Washington Ahead -- Oregon Despair," The Columbian, August 13, 1853, p. 2; "The Road to Walla-walla," The Columbian, July 16, 1853, p. 2; "Editor's Table," The Columbian, June 4, 1853, p. 2; "Meeting of Congress -- Northern Oregon -- Its Wants, [G]rievances, Interests, &c., &c.," The Columbian, December 11, 1852, p. 2; "Memorials to the Legislature," The Columbian, January 1, 1853, p. 2; "Chinook Byways -- A Part of SR 410 in Washington State: Corridor Planning and Management Guidebook," Chinook Scenic Byway website accessed June 23, 2014 (http://chinookscenicbyway.com/docs/ChinookPassCorridorManagementPlan.pdf); The Congressional Globe, Thirty-Second Congress, Second Session, December 29, 1852, p. 165, copy available at Library of Congress website accessed June 23, 2014 (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=031/llcg031.db&recNum=400; "An Act for the Construction of Military Roads in Oregon Territory," U.S. Statutes at Large, 32nd Congress, 2nd Session, ch. 9, copy available at Library of Congress website accessed June 23, 2104 (http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=010/llsl010.db&recNum=172); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "U.S. President Millard Fillmore establishes Washington Territory on March 2, 1853" (by Greg Lange), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed June 23, 2104).

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